In Kenya, a Cherished Fig Tree Gets a Reprieve

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Demonstrators turned out last month in Nairobi to protest the Kenyan government’s plan to remove the fig tree.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

By Abdi Latif Dahir

CAIRO — A beloved fig tree in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, will live to see another day — and, possibly, another century.

On Wednesday, the head of the Nairobi metropolitan area said the 100-year-old fig tree that was slated for removal to make way for a new expressway would not only be saved but also preserved as a national symbol of environmental conservation.

The announcement was a victory for both environmentalists and cultural leaders in Kenya who denounced the efforts to cut or relocate the fig tree, which many communities consider sacred. Some experts had doubted that the ancient tree, which is four stories high, would have survived being uprooted and moved.

“Whatever development that is going to happen here will not touch this tree,” Maj. Gen. Mohammed Badi, the director general of the Nairobi Metropolitan Services, said during a visit to the fig tree in the bustling commercial district of Westlands.Mr. Badi said he had instructed city officials to fence off the tree and beautify the area so that the city’s residents could enjoy the space. He also signed a declaration that adopted the tree “as a beacon of Kenya’s cultural and ecological heritage” and as a symbol of “Nairobi’s commitment to environmental conservation.”

The authorities announced in October that they planned to uproot the tree to make way for the construction of the Nairobi Expressway, a four-lane highway funded and built by China. The 17-mile highway, which is set for completion in 2022, is aimed at reducing traffic in the heart of Nairobi and is expected to create thousands of jobs.

But from the outset, the project drew criticism from environmental groups who said the effects on air quality and green spaces had not been taken into account. Even though Nairobi is popularly known as the “Green City in the Sun,” parks, forests and gardens have been dwindling in the city in recent years because of commercial and infrastructural development.

Activists also lamented the felling of dozens of trees along the highway’s route and filed a case against the environmental regulator for approving the project. Kenyan law would normally require the suspension of the project pending a court decision, but construction has continued.

Environmentalists on Wednesday welcomed the decision to save the fig tree but called for more action to save green spaces across the capital.

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